A solemn religious observance by devout Muslims, in the holy month of Ramadan, has been turned into a political opportunity by incorrigible political community in India, in the recent years.
Almost every political party (even the leftist luminaries are often seen in these gatherings, ruminating strategies, when not relishing the tunda kebabs!) – be it the Rashtriya Lok Dal, Samajwadi Party, Aam Aadmi Party, Telegu Desam, Trinamool Congress or even AIADMK, are hosting Iftar parties, gauging some political mileage!
Call it sheer tokenism, pure vote bank politics, or a sign of encouraging inclusiveness for the religious minorities in a ‘secular’ country, whatever the purposes be, Iftar parties are purposefully being hosted in the sprawling bungalows or fashionable farm houses of politicians of different hues and hierarchy.
The political Iftar parties often hosted by the non-Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan are a unique phenomenon, and undoubtedly it’s exclusive to India! It is a prime example, how our politicians leave no stone unturned, to cash on the religious sentiments, eying vote bank politics!
The lavish feasts at the solemn religious functions, primarily at the cost of public exchequer, attended by political honchos and eminent people from the business or diplomatic worlds, cannot create any holy environment either, other than political fervour.
What is the exact viewpoint of Islamic scriptures about the Iftar arrangements by ‘non-believers’ for the ‘believers’, is yet to be explored, but Mufti Mukkarram Ahmed, the Chief Mufti and Imam of Fatehpuri Mosque, Delhi, a well-known Muslim Cleric and scholar had been quoted in ‘Times of India’, dated December 9, 2001, saying: “I avoid going for these political ‘nautankis’, but if I must, I carry my khazoor (dates) to break my fast because you can never be sure of the source of income of these lavish parties that politicians throw and Islam says that what you eat for Iftar must be from halal kamai (honest income)“.
Congress Holds Iftar Party at Ashoka Hotel
On Monday evening, I went to meet a friend at Delhi’s IANS Building. When enquired about the desolate look, on a busy Monday evening, he told me that almost every journalist from the Building went to attend Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s Iftar dinner at Ashoka Hotel!
The next day, newspapers reported:
“At the Iftar dinner thrown last night by Congress President Sonia Gandhi, the enormous Convention Hall at Delhi’s Ashok hotel throbbed with the hum of gossip and the visible relief of having survived the worst year in recent political memory, as leaders of key Opposition parties happily tucked into chicken biriyani and fish fingers and paneer lathered with masala – and later, jalebi and phirni – as they sat around the several round tables scattered across the hall”
…“Monday saw the attendance of top leaders from almost all Opposition parties. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, former Minister and NCP Chief Sharad Pawar, his close aide Praful Patel were among those who attended the function. BSP’s Satish Mishra, RJD’s Prem Gupta and Jai Prakash Yadav and TMC’s Derek O’Brien formed the who’s who of anti-BJP force. Leaders like former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, DMK’s Kanimozhi were also present. But, it was the absence of Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav and his chief minister son Akhilesh Yadav which was a subject of discussion in the media contingent present on the occasion”.
… “Considerable significance is being attached to this get-together ahead of Parliament’s monsoon session, which is likely to be the most turbulent for the Narendra Modi Government since it came to power in May last year. During off camera interaction with media men on the sidelines of the Iftar party, Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi also gave ample hints about a stormy Parliament session”.
“Congress is utilising the opportunity to send a message of larger opposition unity at a time when BJP and the Modi government are on the back foot following a series of controversies in the recent times…”
The Congress-led Opposition was also expected to stall the Rajya Sabha where it has the majority. The session begins on July 21.
It was a different story last year when the Congress President Sonia Gandhi hosted her Iftar party at the same venue, after the Party’s big electoral defeat. The attendance had been visibly thin, while most leaders of “like-minded and secular” parties had stayed away. There were many notable absentees even from the party’s own ranks!
On Monday last, the gathering was quite impressive. In the mid of the crowds sat Congress President Sonia Gandhi, flanked by Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) head Nitish Kumar, who wore a skull cap marching the occasion. Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien, represented his boss Mamata Banerjee, who was either busy in Bengal arranging Iftar Paries, or perhaps skirted the meet anticipating the presence of Congress friendly CPI (M) leaders in the party.
On the table at Sonia Gandhi’s left, was seated former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, almost silent as usual. Next to him was AK Antony, and next to him the ever obedient, ever keen, former Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, wearing a green and yellow Sari.
The table on Sonia Gandhi’s right was occupied by the future generation of Congress, and other parties. Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Vice President was presiding over this younger lot, which had Kumari Selja from Congress, Omar Abdullah from National Conference and Kanimozhi from DMK. The IPL man and Congress politician Rajiv Shukla was always present in the vicinity of Rahul Gandhi, perhaps to be a part of any photo-op session!
Everyone, in Congress or in the other parties too made it a point, to reach this table of Congress’s future generation.
The Significance of Iftar
“Allahuma inni laka sumtu wa ‘ala rizqika aftartu”: “O Allah! For thy sake I have fasted and now I break the fast with the food that comes from thee.”
Iftar is the meal which is taken after sunset during Sawm, the fasting which occurs during the month of Ramadan.
Since people have fasted during the day, they are often hungry by the time Iftar comes around, and most people hasten to end the fast as quickly as possible after sunset.
In communities with a large Muslim population, a public announcement is made, or other signal given to indicate the end of the day’s fast and the information may be broadcast over the media as well.
By tradition, all able-bodied Muslims who are not out on the road travelling, participate in Sawm. The children who have not attained puberty however are not required to fast.
In addition to abstaining from food, devout Muslims refrain from a number of activities. The Sawm fast during Ramadan is intended to teach self-restraint, which is viewed as a virtue by Muslims. A day of Sawm begins with Suhur, the meal which is eaten just before daybreak. Because it will be the last meal for many hours, Suhur is often a rich meal with a number of offerings on the table, including offerings high in protein so that people will feel less hungry during the day. At very least, people are encouraged to eat a date and drink some water to make fasting through the day easier.
Iftar usually starts with consuming a date and drinking water, a tradition which goes back to the earliest days of Islam. Once this traditional fast-breaking is complete, people can eat any number of foods, with many regions having their own traditional Iftar foods, including a wide assortment of desserts. It is common for people to eat Iftar in large groups, making the fast breaking into a community party, and Muslims often try to include charity in their Iftar meal as a priority, feeding needy people and the poor while they celebrate the end of the day’s fast. Muslims believe that feeding someone Iftar as a charity is very rewarding and it was practised by the Prophet Muhammad.
A Purely Religious Affair
Iftar is taken right after Maghrib time, which is around sunset. Traditionally three dates are eaten to break the fast in emulation of Prophet Muhammad, who broke his fast in this manner.
A wide variety of foods are prepared to break the fast at Maghrib time. Traditionally, this is held at a regional or village mosque for those who have or will be performing the evening prayers. At the mosque, a mosque buffet is prepared by the local residents at which all are welcomed to break their fast together.
In places like Hyderabad, people break their fast with Haleem, which has a rich taste and is quite filling. In southern states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Muslims break their fast with nonbu kanji, a rich, filling rice dish of porridge consistency, cooked for hours with meat and vegetables. This is often served with bonda, bajji, and vadai.
Vegetarians of other communities are given a dish called surkumba, which is prepared from milk. It is mainly done in certain parts of Karnataka.
In world’s largest Muslim nation Indonesia, Iftar is called “buka puasa”, which also means “to open the fast”. Markets sell various foods for iftar, including the date, which is popular, as well as unique Indonesian food and drink such as kolak, es kelapa muda, es buah, cendol and dawet.
In Pakistan, preparations begin 3 hours before, in homes. Many restaurants offer iftar in the big cities. Iftar is usually heavy in Pakistan, consisting mainly of sweet and savoury treats such as jalebi,samosas , pakoras, namak para, Kebabs, fruit salads, besides dates and water.
After iftar, people go to the local mosques to offer Tarawih prayer during the holy month of Ramadan.
Then, the community comes alive with socialising. People may simply promenade around the neighbourhood to exchange pleasantries with friends, or they may go to market places, attend religious discourses or performances, and meet up with friends and relatives at other locations for socialising.
Transformation of Traditional Iftar
The meaning and idea of Eid-ul-Fitr is distinct. This whole month of fast is a period meant to be devoted to self-purification, helping the poor and concentrate on God. It is not a time to enjoy or feast. Unfortunately, this is what Iftar parties have come to signify these days. Also, little to no non-vegetarian food is consumed during this period.
Traditional food includes energy-giving dates, sweetmeats and seviyan (vermicelli pudding). The scientific reason behind this is that after a whole day of fasting, a light and healthy meal is recommended.
However, Iftar parties now suggest , feasting with mouth-watering kebabs, rich Mughlai food, Fish Tikka and gosht heavy Pulao ! The dates and seviyan are almost sidelined into formalities!
For the common people Iftar provides an opportunity for the entire family to sit together and share love, duties and compassion and the children are given lessons in devotion, love, care, sharing and humility. Family bonding is reaffirmed. On the official level it is socialising alongwith doing business. Iftar-dinner has now become a regular corporate affair in Muslim countries. There are parties continue throughout the month of Ramadan.
Many organisations in these Islamic countries host Iftar-dinners twice . The first one is on a small scale and is usually hosted during the 27th of Ramadan and it is only meant for the employees. The others are of course, for friends and the clients.
Iftar is surely not a party time or the occasion to build or break political alliances. It is a moment of introspection for the faithful, positioned between two main prayers. It is the time to seek forgiveness, engage in introspection and entreaty. Also, the fasting may end at Iftar, to be resumed after Suhoor in the early morning, but Ramadan continues. Even after the fasting ends for the day, the practices of Ramadan remains. Purity of both thought and action is imperative, not only during the fasting period, but for the entire month.
The politicians generally do not know the sacredness of Ramadan prayers. Instead, their purpose seems to be to entertain their political hosts. To be frank, the Iftar bonhomie by politicians is squarely improper, because the motive behind to host or attend such Iftar parties is to publicly display their goodwill to the Muslims and, by inference, the Muslims also expected to ‘repay’ this munificence on their part while voting in the next elections!
When It All Started?
Historically speaking, the custom of Political Iftar was started in India, by the champion of ‘secularism’, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru used to host Iftar Party every year at the Congress Party office in Delhi, which was in those days at 7, Jantar Mantar Road. It used to be a closed gathering of Nehru’s Muslim Colleagues like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad , Rafi Ahmed Kidwai and others mostly Muslim politicians and the journalists. This practice was stopped by Lal Bahadur Shastri, who succeeded him.
In the year 1974, H.N. Bahuguna as Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister, revived this political practice, in Lucknow, hoping to gather the Muslim votes, in his favour . Bahuguna’s success inspired many, and in UP, it became a norm, assiduously followed in the later years by Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son.
In 1977, after the Janta Party came to power at the Centre, senior Party leader Chandra Shekhar started to organise Iftar parties at the Party office at Jantar Mantar inviting politicians, bureaucrats and religious heads. Prime Minister Morarji Desai, however, made it a point not to attend such gatherings.
During Emergency, Muslim community was antagonised by the Congress Party. So, when it came to power again after Janata Party failed, it wanted to gain back Muslim support, in its fold. Indira Gandhi began the tradition in 1980. The parties organised during those years were known for the delicious fare of kebabs and biryani.
Atal Behari Vajpayee, as Prime Minister, also did his Raj Dharma by hosting Iftar parties.
BJP’s Shahnawaz Hussain, who has been organising lavish iftar feasts for some 15 years, did not host one this year. He said he had begun the practice on Vajpayee’s advice. “Atalji organised an iftar feast after our (BJP) victory in 1999 and then told me that from now on, you host it every year and I will join it”. Narsimha Rao and Rajiv Gandhi, continued the Congress practice. Manmohan Singh the first Sikh Prime Minister too followed the practice by holding Iftar parties every year during his tenure at his 7 Race Course Road residence. In his last year as PM, he cancelled it due to the Uttarakhand tragedy.
Narendra Modi, as the Gujarat Chief Minister, never organised an Iftar Party, neither he observed any this year as the Prime Minister. But his Party and his Party colleagues at the States are organising it regularly, in the recent years. Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje, has hosted a grand iftar party for over 1,300 invitees at her official residence in Jaipur. Functionaries of the Anjuman Dargah Sharief of Ajmer, presented her with a Chunri. Raje held iftar parties in her earlier (2003-2008) term as well.
BJP units in Maharashtra, Bihar, Karnataka ,Punjab and West Bengal organised Iftar parties, whereas the units in Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Telangana have not organised it.
And for the first time, RSS Muslim wing, ‘ Muslim Rashtriya Manch’ organised its Iftar on July 4. Its Chief Patron Indresh Kumar, MRM National Convener Mohd. Afzal, Organizing Convener Girish Juyal, Muslim scholars and diplomats from Muslim countries of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen among others, attended the meet.
Party Time And Politics
In Srinagar, Kashmir, the largest Iftar Party in the world have been attended by seven thousand people. On the other hand, the separatist organistions also observed their Iftar Party on 11 July. The moderate Hurriyat Conference Chairman, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) Chairman Mohammad Yasin Malik attended the Iftar party hosted by hardline Hurriyat Conference Chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani.
This is for the first time since the breakup of Hurriyat Conference in 2003 that the leaders came together. The Iftar party was held at the residence of Geelani and was attended by separatist leaders. A unanimous resolution was passed at the Iftar party in which it was stated that the policies of the BJP, RSS, VHP and Congress will be unitedly fought by.
It’s also speculated that Narendra Modi will hold a grand Iftar party in Srinagar, soon. This will be a change, because Narendra Modi has never organises an Iftar Party. Neither attended one. Recently, sending a letter to Narendra Modi, West Bengal State Congress Chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury claimed that there was resentment among the Muslim community over the Central Government breaking the age-old tradition of holding Iftar parties during the month of Ramadan, and urged Prime Minister to continue the ritual.
It should be noted that, in the year 2009, Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulema had issued a fatwa stating that holding of Iftar by political parties had no religious sanctity. On a query of Colonel (retd) M J Shamsi, Mufti Zahoor Nadvi of the Darul Ifta said that there is no religious sanctity to Iftar organised by political parties as these functions are thrown for vested interests.
By Deep Basu
Images contributed by author